Tell me a story… Almost one year ago, I relocated to Portland, Oregon. When I arrived in my new city, I knew only four people in the area, three of them were relatives and one person was a friend-of-a-friend. Needless to say, creating meaningful connections and developing a social circle was a priority for me to live a healthy, balanced, and fulfilling life. The more I explored and learned about Portland, the stronger my desire grew to know about the people who inhabited this community, beyond the superficial or ephemeral aspects. What were the characteristics that shaped their lives? What types of challenges or adversities had they overcome? What were the defining or pivotal moments in their lives? The answer arrived in the form of an advertisement for a local storytelling event that made its way into my eager hands. The evening of the event finally arrived and as the first person stepped onto the bare, faintly lit stage, courageously recounting a vignette of their life, the electricity of the moment was palpable. While listening to story after story, tears were streaming down my face and I felt a myriad of emotions coursing through my body, ranging from fear, anger, and sadness, to elation and exaltation. A curious thing happened, I was relating to both the person telling the story and the story itself, even though there was no correlation between these stories and my own life. It was as if the sense of “otherness” no longer existed in that moment.
It gave me the feeling of connection and community. It also stirred in me the curiosity and wonder as to why we feel such a powerful connection when we listen to someone else’s story, or share a story of our own, even if it’s with a stranger? My answer came in two waves. Firstly, we all have a running narrative in our minds, and our thoughts and memories are organized as stories. Stories attribute meaning to our sense of self, our experiences, the social landscape of our lives, and the world around us. To quote Jean Luc Godard, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” Stories also serve different functions at the mental and emotional level; they captivate our attention to transcend the routine of daily life, provide important information about a topic of interest, and inspire us to stretch beyond our perceived boundaries to learn about or experience something new. Stories foster a sense of community as we explore mutual or collective experiences. Stories also preserve cultural traditions, literature, laws, and heritage, as rich cultural material is transmitted from one generation to another, through speech, song, prose, verses or folktales.
The stories we tell literally make the world. If you want to change the world, you need to change your story. This truth applies both to individuals and institutions. ~ Michael Margolis
Secondly, stories, whether they are in the form of a book, movie, musical, poetic, or other rendition, affect the limbic system; they trigger specific neurochemical processes that release cortisol (a stress hormone that captures and sustains attention) and oxytocin (a hormone that creates connection and bonding). This neurochemical phenomenon is known as “transportation”. Transportation occurs when the listener or reader experiences a level of emotional engagement with a story that awakens empathy, which is their ability to understand and share the feelings of another. Through the process of transportation, the ability to entertain new and different perspectives is also greatly enhanced. Researchers, most notably scientist and neuroeconomist Paul Zak, determined that the more cortisol and oxytocin that were released through transportation, the more the participants responded with empathy and were motivated to acts of compassion or altruism that benefited others. Researchers also found that stories with happy or fortunate outcomes stimulated release of dopamine, a neurotransmitter that helps control the brain's reward and pleasure centers.
There is a sense of unity that develops between the storyteller, the listener, and the tale. As a story is being told, mirror neurons are activated in the brains of the listeners, as well as the storyteller. Mirror neurons are brain cells that fire when we perform an action, and are also activated when we observe someone else performing that same action. In essence, our brains are able to process the experience and lessons learned from the story of another, as if it had actually happened to us. Mirror neurons also play an important role in understanding the actions, intentions, and emotions of other people. This creates a field of shared understanding, which stimulates characteristics such altruism, compassion, and in some cases, heroism. As we listen deeply and relate to the trials, tribulations, and successes of others, it breaks down social bias and promotes inclusiveness. So take time to share your story with others, give yourself the gift of listening deeply. For more information on listening as a form of healing, please read Brook’s insightful blog Creating the Gift of Full Presence Through Deep Listening.
You may tell a tale that takes up residence in someone's soul, becomes their blood and self and purpose. That tale will move them and drive them and who knows that they might do because of it, because of your words. That is your role, your gift. ~ Erin Morgenstern, multimedia artist and author
Walk in Beauty,